Beyond a Brave New World - Part 4: Freedom

If you can keep your humanity when all about you are losing theirs.

Beyond a Brave New World - Part 4: Freedom

Beyond Brave New World is a series of articles exploring societal and individual satisfaction in the context of technological progress, with Aldous Huxley’s work as a guide.

Dead Democracies

Dead Democracies

In the West, it's true, individual men and women still enjoy a large measure of freedom. But even in those countries that have a tradition of democratic government, this freedom and even the desire for this freedom seems to be on the wane.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).

Many people I have spoken to have been surprised by how much support there has been for lockdowns in the last two years. Lockdowns are a short-term, temporary measure (a few days at the most) in order to restore order during a crisis. They are not part of a democratic government’s everyday toolkit and are only allowed through emergency powers.

One can argue over the necessity of lockdowns, but what I am referring to is the general lack of scrutiny that surrounded them. Fundamentally to the vast majority of people, safety is more important than freedom. When we feel unsafe, freedom becomes an ill-affordable luxury.

In the first half of the twentieth century, science and technology was generally portrayed as the harbinger of a new age of leisure, progress and prosperity. As documentary filmmaker Adam Curtis points out in his blog post about modern science and vegetables, after the advent of nuclear disasters like Three Mile Island and the DDT scandal, the destructive elements of technological development became more apparent.

In this new climate of fear, many scientists now became risk-managing statisticians. They promised to forecast, highlight and eliminate risks. Curtis quotes the political scientist Ulrich Beck, who went as far as accusing scientists of ‘manufacturing risk’.

This sense of a lack of safety fuels a lack of desire for freedom. Freedom is not a cause that the majority of people would put themselves at risk for, unless they consider the conditions of servitude to be absolutely unliveable. History would suggest that a situation has to be almost unimaginably unreasonable before any significant number of people are willing to die, or even to risk imprisonment, in order to change it.

When you combine these fear tactics with a moral loophole, obedience becomes all but guaranteed. If we can be convinced that obedience is the moral choice, then we can give in to our cowardice and feel good about doing so. This tactical combination was heavily and most famously used by the Nazis. Being a part of their atrocities was presented as a moral good and to stand against them was to risk imprisonment or death. A classic carrot and stick.

In other words, we the people demand the right to freely move about our cage. So long as we are protected from the dangers outside it. And as we are warned of more and more threats in the wilderness, we will accept smaller and smaller cells.

Recent public opinion polls have revealed that an actual majority of young people in their teens, the voters of tomorrow, have no faith in the democratic institutions, see no objection to the censorship of unpopular ideas, do not believe that government of the people by the people is possible, and would be perfectly content, if they can continue to live in the style to which the boom has accustomed them, to be ruled, form above, by an oligarchy of assorted experts.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).

This was written of the youth in 1958! Yet the same sentiment is appearing in the headlines of 2020 (which says something about the somewhat cyclical nature of generational differences — every generation believes the ones that come after them to be lazy, irresponsible etc.). If anything, I believe that this actually gives us a great deal of hope. Many of the issues with, for example, cancel culture, are more like teens’ teething problems with reality as opposed to fundamental shifts in attitude.

The big shift is that these teething teens now have a great deal more social power than they did in the 1950s and ‘60s. At that time, students only had the streets to protest in. Any physical protest can be stopped by physical violence, of which the state has plenty. It is far easier for the public to see that a physical protest is a fringe minority group. Ironically, once this minority group becomes digital — and so less tangible — they are able to create the spectre of public uproar, creating social storms in a virtual teacup. In some cases, these completely virtual protests can have a great deal more influence than physical ones — there have been (albeit not that many) incidents of of individuals losing their entirely livelihoods due to ‘public’ opinion shifting against them and organisations and employers trying to save face. In reality, these groups are the same protesting minority fringe teens with teething problems, who once they are benefitting from ‘the system’ suddenly become in favour of it.

The caveat to this is that as virtuality becomes more deeply embedded into our lives, these teething stages are becoming longer and it seems people are taking longer to grow up and mature. The longer this period can be extended, the more insecurities we have and the more willing we are to accept those who promise to vanquish chaos if we give them control.

When the Germans formed the Vichy government after invading France in 1940, they changed the famous slogan from the 1789 revolution, ‘liberty, equality, fraternity,’ to ‘work, family, fatherland’.

We see here the insidious nature of a phrase like ‘trust the science’. It employs the three word slogan technique favoured by the great dogmatists and propagandists of the past and present. It simultaneously speaks to both the creation of fear and the subjugation of your own independent thinking to those who know better (’trust the science’ as opposed to ‘understand the science’ or ‘scrutinise the science’). It is the slogan of an oligarchy of assorted experts. It is the battle-cry of a Brave New World.

We may expect to see in the democratic countries a reversal of the process which transformed England into a democracy, while retaining all the outward forms of a monarchy.... and by means of ever more effective methods of mind-manipulation, the democracies will change their nature; the quaint old forms — elections, parliaments, Supreme courts and all the rest will remain. The underlying substance will be a new kind of non-violent totalitarianism.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).

To use the United Kingdom as an example, during the last general election, the party which I wanted to vote for in my local constituency (the Green Party) suddenly pulled out at the last minute. They had ‘formed an alliance’ with another party. In other words, they believed that by reducing my options, they could force to me vote in a particular way.

The United Kingdom calls herself a constitutional monarchy. She became a democratic constitutional monarchy gradually, without formally declaring herself one. Similarly, it seems entirely possible that she can gradually become an autocratic constitutional monarchy without declaring herself one. For those democratically aligned and statistically-inclined, this YouGov poll from late 2020 will make concerning reading.

Lonely Cities

Lonely Cities

City life is anonymous and, as it were, abstract. People are related to one another, not as total personalities, but as the embodiments of economic functions, or when they are not at work, as irresponsible seekers of entertainment. Subjected to this kind of life, individuals tend to feel lonely and insignificant. Their existence ceases to have any point or meaning.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).

Cities tend to attract people looking for opportunities — financial, social, experiential. So, it is unsurprising that cities are full of opportunists (in the most generous sense of the word). The city-dweller is always looking to improve their situations, looking for better employment, better friends and better ways to spend their time. The people, places and activities they engage with are transient. Commitments come second to conveniences.

It is not uncommon for people to find solace in virtual communities. Bonded by some similar interest, small virtual communities can often be the source of strong bonds. At the same time, these are no substitute for physical connection.

Therefore, if you wish to avoid the spiritual impoverishment of individuals and whole societies, leave the metropolis and revive the small country community, or alternatively, humanize the metropolis by creating within its network of mechanical organizations the urban equivalent of small country communities, in which individuals can meet and co-operate as complete persons, not as the mere embodiments of specialized functions.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).

Certainly during the lockdowns there as something of an exodus from the cities. Given the chance to rethink their lives, many people have wondered whether cities still offer the same kinds of benefits. With greater ability to work remotely, the economic appeal of cities is lessened.

However, have these small country communities evolved? It seems that we are still largely engaging in the shallow connections offered by online interaction, a social phenomena that Huxley did not foresee.

How can we once again infuse our everyday interactions with spiritual purpose?

I would imagine that one of the most common reasons to remain in a city is the fear of a loss of opportunity. Once we are established — financially, socially, perhaps even spiritually — it seems to be an increasingly common desire to seek smaller, more connected communities and to live in more peaceful places.

The most common dream for young people is to have the financial independence to travel the world. The point of this travelling is to find ourselves and our ‘tribe’ amongst the anonymities of urban and virtual cultures. If there is a more widespread ambition of todays youth, it has yet to bounce into my echo chamber. Yet, the loneliness epidemic rages.

Biologically speaking, man is a moderately gregarious, not completely a social animal — a creature more like a wolf, let us say, or an elephant, than like a bee or an ant. In their original form human societies bore no resemblance to the hive or the ant heap; they were merely packs. Civilization is, among other things, the process by which primitive packs are transformed into an analogue, crude and mechanical, of the social insects' organic communities... However hard they try, men cannot create a social organism, they can only create an organization.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).

Despite this loneliness, it seems the ability to be alone is lost art. The popular author and computer scientist Cal Newport points out that although we have a great deal of loneliness, we have very little solitude. Solitude means to be alone with your own thoughts. Now, even if we are alone, there is always a book, podcast, song or livestream which can give us temporary comfort. Without these things, we feel isolated or inadequate.

In a world of niche online communities, fitting in is a case of a few clicks. Yet how do we account for the enormous amount of painful isolation?

It is an uncomfortable thing, to be in solitude, to imagine through social media that others are having brilliant interactions and getting ahead or moving on without us. Our heads are constantly full of the ideas of others and so we regurgitate to each other the latest memes. We do not notice when we have become unmoored from our own values and drifted into a sea of meaningless echoes.

Free People

Free People

Take the right to vote. In principle, it is a great privilege. In practice, as recent history has repeatedly shown, the right to vote, by itself, is no guarantee of liberty. Therefore, if you wish to avoid dictatorship by plebiscite, breaking up society's vast, machine-like collective into self-governing, voluntarily co-operating groups, capable of functioning outside the bureaucratic institutions of Big Business and Big Government.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).

The idea of Decentralisation is at the heart of the Web3 and cryptocurrency boom. We are promised a new paradigm where everything is accessible and all have equality of access, based on the ability to vote for changes to distributed databases.

Yet already, large institutions have been fast to add Web3 to their repertoire, investing heavily and donning the labels. It seems that this new world is already being absorbed by the old.

Even if the crypto-communities stand alone, what is the likelihood that these smaller groups won’t simply result in self-destructive competition? That is unless there is some kind of centralised corpus that holds everything together, an organism that unites the cells.

While there is huge potential promised by Web3, politically and economically, it remains to be seen whether it stand apart from archaic institutions or simply come to embody them. The common tendency to give up control for safety and convenience suggests the latter.

An organization... is good only to the extent that it promotes the good of the individuals who are the parts of the collective whole. To give organizations precedence over persons is to sub-ordinate ends to means.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).

It is easy for an organisational process to become self-justifying even though it no longer delivers the desired outcome, if it ever did. Those who forever spend their time building productivity systems but never produce anything embody this perfectly. That said, there is often a mismatch between the stated goals and actual goals.

For example, the true goal of any organisation set up to end world hunger will, in many cases, be the employment and career progression of bureaucratic and politically-minded individuals. The goal of ending world hunger is merely a social mechanism to achieve this. They may do good work to reduce world hunger, but they will do even more work in raising awareness about the plight of world hunger, drawing as much attention and capital as they possibly can to their endeavour. If world hunger were to actually end, this would be an existential catastrophe for the organisation — they would be disbanded and so will have failed in their underlying goal. The bureaucrats will have to find new employment.

Nature and society is rife with this kind of conflict of interest. Even the cells in your body have competing interests. Each cell has a ‘selfish’ desire to make as many copies of itself as possible, but it must be restricted for the good of the entire organism. When a cell group refuses to play by these rules, it replicated uncontrollably, forming a tumour. In a basic sense, cancer can be described as a breakdown of negotiations between cells, due to their inherent conflict of interest.

In any case, even though organisations appear to sub-ordinate ends to means, I think that this is rarely the case — they are simply not being honest about their true ends. True ends are always related to deep-seated desires — love, safety, security, respect. The true end of the productivity procrastinator and prolific planner is managing their fear of uncertainty and sense of a lack of control, even though their stated end the creation of value.

The general trend of homo sapiens has been towards greater and greater organisation, from hunter-gatherer communities to agricultural metropolises and so on. That said, I believe that the cultural end of all of this is towards a more relaxed and fluid approach. Why do I believe this? Simply because it is clear that dissatisfaction and disillusionment inevitably leads to the collapse of over-organised societies and empires. ‘The world is littered with the ruins of empires that thought they would last forever,’ to quote Camille Paglia.

The empires of today are more technologically sophisticated, but they are no less subject to shifting human whims and cultural winds.

The best example of this cycle to my mind is that of the oldest cultures, coming from East and West Africa. There have been numerous cycles of rise of empire and collapse of empire. Now, there is an inherent skepticism in the value of organisation built into some of these cultures. The general impression given is that they cannot become developed, whereas the reality is that they simply don’t wish to. They prefer to live in the moment, having embedded this presentism into their culture in a way that would make your mindfulness guru jealous. Dancing, music, celebration and spirituality have become their focus. They are subject to other kinds of fallout from the short-term thinking that comes with this presentism, but I believe that this is more sensible than the ever more destructive cycles of empirical rise and collapse, economic boom and bust.

Ghana polls as one of the most religious countries in the world. Yet, it is not uncommon to find people who believe in God, Allah, animism and juju (black magic). They don’t believe in dogmatic religiosity or persecution. There is an inherent understanding that spirituality is about the practices and rituals that help us navigate and make sense of the world. It is not uncommon to find people who are in the Mosque on Friday and the Church on Sunday, interacting with various communities and building bonds.

The places that live in the ruins of collapsed empires seem to adopt this kind of skepticism over time. Italy, once the home of the Roman empire, now adopts a much more relaxed lifestyle, valuing family and having a good time over getting ahead, at least relative to most ‘developed’ nations.

People in the United States, the United Kingdom and China are already beginning to ask themselves more and more, ‘what is the value of all this empire building’. We see that young men in particular are becoming disillusioned. The Chinese government are showing increasing concern over the growing ‘lying flat’ movement, described by the novelist Liao Zenghu as a “‘resistance movement’ against the ‘cycle of horror’ of high-pressure schools and endless-hours jobs”.

In John Dewey's words, 'a renewal of faith in common human nature, in its potentialities in general, and in its power in particular to respond to reason and truth, is a surer bulwark against totalitarianism than a demonstration of material success or a devout worship of special legal and political forms.'

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).

Beyond all the lofty ideals we can aspire to, there is the simple matter of satisfying those basic physical, physiological, social, emotional and spiritual, desires.

To be interested in the basic problems of humanity, you have to be interested in humanity. In some sense you have to take a forgiving and balanced view, taking the good along with the evil. Those who talk about preferring animals or saving the lives of animals over other human beings have not accepted their own humanity, the good and evil that exists within them, and cannot mature. This disdain for humanity is often deeply linked to a disdain of the self and hinders personal and societal progress.

Elon Musk talks frequently about his love for humanity. I believe this to be very genuine and it is perhaps unsurprising that he is considered one of the most valuable human’s of all time (by external metrics).

The famed anime producer, Hayao Miyazaki, expresses similar sentiments, criticising those storytellers who bear some hatred or cynicism for humanity and so do not look closely at it, ‘humans who can’t stand looking at other humans’. These cynics do not listen to what people want or say because they resent them. And when the cynics don’t progress as a result of their bitterness, it only deepens.

Cultivating a love for humanity, the condition of living, your own life and the lives of those around you is an antidote to the imagined suffering of cynicism and misanthropy and the real suffering of basic human problems.

Some of us still believe that, without freedom, human beings cannot become fully human and that freedom is therefore supremely valuable. Perhaps the forces that now menace freedom are too strong to be resisted for very long. It is still our duty to do whatever we can to resist them.

Aldous Huxley, Brave New World Revisited (1958).

I believe that in the pursuit of a narrow set of metrics and desires, wealth and pleasure, we have narrowed our human experience in kind. In seeking excessive comfort and the elimination of pain, we have given up some vital things, including aspects of our freedom. My life’s mission is to experience the depth and breadth of human experience. In reality, this means opening oneself up to tremendous pain. To me, it is worth it, to understand what on Earth this life is really about.

This brings the Beyond a Brave New Word Series to an end. Thank you all for coming with me along this journey. We have been through the darkness, but at each step I hope that the light shone through at the end. Huxley’s Brave New World was not so much a story about the future as a story about ‘the ways in which we can lose our humanity.’ The crucial thing in all of this is to have an acceptance of ourselves, others and the way things are while continuously striving to improve them in the ways we know how. And if you can love humanity in spite of all its flaws, then that is the best thing you can do to avoid losing yours.

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